Monday, March 1, 2010

Mentor Monday: Thoughts on habits, routines, and the (occasional) value of disruption.

(Nashua Telegraph photo)
Along with nearly half of the households in New Hampshire, most of the Sisters lost their electricity in last Thursday’s storm: and along with it, of course, such necessities of daily living as internet, cable tv and phone service (not to mention water and heat, of course . . .)

An extended power-outage can be many things. A pain in the neck, obviously. A massive obstacle to productivity, if you’re in the middle of researching a new topic or trying to get in touch with editors in far-flung cities or sources in other states. But the challenge of a major disruption can also provide a push to try something new – or old – that may just be the jumpstart your writing has been looking for.

It is, of course, completely true that there is tremendous value in developing a writing routine. Not only is there the fabled discipline of “write every day,” but most writers will tell you that they have developed certain steps that they repeat at the beginning of a writing session – cues that tell the brain it’s time to get to work. Putting on a specific piece of music, pouring coffee into a certain cup, laying out a particular number of sheets of paper or re-reading the last three paragraphs from the day before are common cues. Sharpening a handful of pencils used to be a favorite, although today that might be utterly useless—unless you’ve had a power outage!

If you always work at a keyboard, writing longhand is a completely different experience. It’s tactile, it’s silent, it’s slower than typing. You cross out things instead of erasing them, which means they linger on the page and may reassert themselves later. (Many people who write poetry will tell you that they ALWAYS start out in longhand for just these reasons.) Writing longhand is inefficient, but it triggers different parts of your brain than typing does. And that can be stimulating.

If you are also accustomed to being interrupted by all the connectivity your computer offers – whether noticing incoming emails or stopping to double-check facts or spellings as you go along, the forced disconnect may push you into longer uninterrupted trains of thought. You may arrive at a destination you would never have reached had you kept getting off that train. Or, to abuse the metaphor, you may find that the train is derailed and the ensuing detour takes you to someplace you hadn’t intended to go at all, and it may turn out to be better than your original destination.

Inefficiency can have its own rewards. I spent Thursday (or was it Friday? Being disconnected is rather disorienting) reading through a stack of biographies I had been fortunate enough to have collected from several libraries earlier in the week. The fact that virtually every obligation I had was cancelled made this a much more indulgent, luxurious experience than it might have been: rather than just flipping through, taking notes on my subject, I actually read the narratives as their authors had intended. In the process, I was reminded why we do this after all!

As a non-fiction writer, I would never complain about either the computer or the internet. Most of what I’ve written in the last 15 years would have been impossible for me to research without them. But the trade-off for efficiency can be costly. We can lose the sound of the inner voice that leads us. We can forget the richness of immersion in our subject. We can even become immune to the joy of creating something new. So thank you, Mother Nature, for the reminder. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make it a point to pull the plug myself once in a while!


Mur said...

May I add that changing writing space might also be helpful on occasion. (The library? A coffee shop? The mall food court?) It sure wasn't going to happen in my freezing house! :)

Diane Mayr said...

You're so right, Sally. On Friday I actually finished reading a book and started a second one--in the middle of the day! I never do that--it's usually just a few pages before bed each night. Last September I took 5 days and went to a nice secluded place and read 4 or 5 books. I also cheated and watched a complete season of Bones since there was a DVD player at the cabin. But, that was ALL I did! I recommend it to everyone! It was delightful to read books for pleasure, and, not on a screen.

I'm Jet . . . said...

Always very cool to hit the refresh button of life.